homelessness

Finding a Way to Survive

by Wyatt Massey

Elliott Uglum has always been a storyteller. Anyone who has had a conversation with him can see how animated he is. He comes alive in his stories. Below, are just a few the stories Uglum shared with us.

Elliot Uglum tells stories at a Gathering meal

Elliot Uglum tells stories at a Gathering meal

One moment, Elliot Uglum was playing “war games” in the Bayou of Louisiana. Then, he was in an actual war.

“Next thing you know, I’m on a ship going to Vietnam,” Uglum said.

Troubled by bad feet and the residual effects of three gunshot wounds, Uglum walks with care. Yet he speaks with force: He knows how to survive. It kept him alive in Vietnam, helped him overcome an alcohol addiction and multiple Wisconsin winters living in a tent.


“I’ve had a good life, I’ve had a rough life.”


Uglum was born and raised in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. When he could not find work after high school, Uglum traveled south on a rumor that there was work in Tennessee. His first job was fixing potholes on roadways in Memphis, Tennessee. He also found part-time work as a truck driver, taxi driver, body shop mechanic and sandwich cook.

Work, despite being part time, was steady. Uglum even fixed and painted a 1922 Bentley for a man in London, a job Uglum recalls with pride.

He was forced to leave those jobs behind, though, when he went to war.

Uglum and his friends often traveled to the French Cajun neighborhoods of Louisiana in the early 1970s to play “war games.” They would simulate battle situations with canoes in the swamps. One day, Uglum explained, a military recruiter saw him swimming and recruited him as a swim instructor in 1972.

Uglum’s movement in the water was noiseless. He kept his arms and legs low as to not disturb the water. The army needed this kind of training to sneak up on Vietnamese ships. Uglum became their instructor and mentor.

“Our job was to sink enemy ships,” Uglum said.

A group of soldiers would swim up to a ship and place plastic explosives on it. They had to move undetected in the dark since the ships were patrolled by armed Vietnamese soldiers, he said.

Uglum recalls he would often join the missions. After multiple years as an instructor, his time in the field ended when one such mission went awry. Vietnamese soldiers heard the unit and opened fire on the American attackers. He began pulling injured recruits out of the water when sharp pains ripped across his body. He had been shot in his left shoulder, left leg and between the shoulder blades. Uglum did not let the pain stop him from the rescue.

“I didn’t let go of either one,” Uglum said of the soldiers he was helping.

As the reality of his wounds set in, though, Uglum explained he needed critical medical attention or he would die.


“I started confessing to God everything I did wrong.”


Uglum was rushed to the nearest MASH station, which turned out to be an infirmary for Vietnamese soldiers. His recovery was slow but he had arrived in time. The colonel celebrated his 27th birthday in the enemy hospital.

When he was healthy enough to be moved, Uglum returned to the United States, ending his military career in 1977. Yet, he continues to wear an “Elite Squadron” button on his hat.

Uglum returned to Tennessee and his previous jobs. Not long after, his mother called. She had been diagnosed with lung cancer and was given six months to live. One of eight children, Uglum’s mother trusted him to run her house and finances. On her request, he moved to Wisconsin.

His mother died on December 9, 1980 at 9 p.m. The exact time is important to Uglum because, two hours later, he learned John Lennon was murdered. The coupling of bad news sent Uglum in a downward spiral.

“I spent six months drunk every day. Those were people I looked up to.”

Uglum was able to hide alcohol addiction enough to keep a job, first as a machinist until 1990 then as a doughnut shop manager until 2001, when he was laid off. Without steady income, he could no longer pay his rent.

The lack of support and nagging injuries from battle contributed to Uglum becoming one of the estimated 49,933 veteran homeless each night.

Yet, Uglum kept surviving. He spent the next two years living with his cousin in a tent between the railroad tracks and the Milwaukee River. They made the tent using a tarp and insulated it with straw from a local farmer. That straw insulated them from the harsh Wisconsin winters.

Finding food was another challenge.


“We ate out of dumpsters and garbage cans,” Uglum said. “If we got sick, we wouldn’t eat out of those garbage cans anymore.”


The two made some money recycling aluminum cans they found. When they had saved enough, they would go to a restaurant for dinner.

Uglum lived in the tent until 2003. By that time, he no longer had shoes and his feet would bleed and well from crushing the aluminum cans. He lives in Milwaukee now, receives disability payments and is saving for his next big adventure: moving out of the cold weather of Wisconsin.

“I’m waiting to get enough money to go back to Tennessee.”

 

Wyatt Massey is a volunteer storyteller for the Gathering. Read more of his work here.

Curtis: Finding the Place the Lord Had Made

by Wyatt Massey

Curtis lending a helping hand in the Gathering kitchen

Curtis lending a helping hand in the Gathering kitchen

The song of blessing Curtis sings before each meal has a special meaning in his own journey from the streets to loving himself. Each morning at the Gathering, before the doors open to meal guests and the room is filled with laughs and conversation, a volunteer is asked to give an opening prayer.

If you are lucky, Curtis will raise his hand and volunteer. He will stand up and, with a voice fueled by faith, sing The Lord Has Made a Place For Me. The song blesses the meal, the volunteers and each guest. Beyond that though, Curtis knows the song has special meaning to his own story.


“When I sing that song,” he says, gesturing to the kitchen and dining area of the Gathering, “This is what I’m talking about. Right here.”


Curtis first came to the Gathering in 1993. He was living on the street, alongside his brother. At the time, the meal program offered a warm place to stay and a meal without questions. It was a consistent refuge compared to life on the street. A time of his life Curtis called “awful,” noting the uncertainty of each night.

“You didn’t know where you were going to lay down,” Curtis said. “Wondering where you were going to go, where you were going to be.”

Curtis lived on the street, on and off, for six years. The longest he stayed without shelter was a year and a half. Despite having a consistent paycheck, a drug habit kept him without decent savings. More than that, Curtis said it was a lack of self-respect that kept him on the streets.


“I didn’t care about myself, but I’m changed now. I’ve got a better understanding of me and I’ve started loving myself again.”


Part of that change included volunteering. After his first meal at the Gathering, Curtis approached Josephine, the program coordinator, and asked if he could volunteer. She told him he could start immediately.

Volunteering also helped Curtis find housing. One morning five years ago, a woman approached Curtis to ask if he needed an apartment. When he told her that he did, she helped him find a place to stay. Curtis said that it was his consistent presence and positive attitude about helping others that showed the woman he was committed to getting better.

That commitment continues today.

Each morning, Curtis washes pots and pans, as well as any other task. Years of service have given him an eye for seeing work that needs to be done. The words of thanks by guests as they leave remind him that “God is here” and that the Lord has provided him with a special place. He encourages others to do their best and trust that they too will find a place where they can thrive.

“If you let your light shine, he’ll find a place for you.”

 

Wyatt Massey is a volunteer storyteller for the Gathering. Read more of his work here.

Craig: Humility and Hard Work

When asked to do an interview, Craig Burrow was hesitant. He is not the kind of person who seeks out the spotlight and he is not “much of a talker.” Craig’s humility, combined with his work ethic, contributes to his amazing volunteer skills. Every Monday through Friday at the Gathering’s breakfast program, Craig can be seen cooking, chatting, laughing and washing dishes in the kitchen.

Craig explained that he got involved with the Gathering through community service. This September will mark Craig’s two year anniversary volunteering with the breakfast program. Craig prefers to spend his time in the kitchen, behind the scenes. He explained, “George is a way cool guy, and being around Cary? It’s fun. He’s a joker. I like to do my thing and watch everybody.”

Craig admires and respects the Gathering staff and volunteers and has become a valuable part of the morning meal. Deacon Ned, a long term volunteer and supporter of the Gathering has also been somewhat of an inspiration to Craig: “I look forward to whenever the Deacon is here. I look forward to his prayers.”

Craig has dealt with homelessness before, but is currently sharing an apartment with a friend. His friend pays a reduced rent and Craig prepares all of their meals as his share of the rent. Since his roommate is not a good cook, the skills Craig cultivated at the Gathering really pay off.

Through connections at the Gathering, Craig has also been able to secure some employment opportunities. He hopes to gain full time work and find his own place. 


“That’s why it’s important to stick around here—‘cause of the connections. That’s what’s important to me—getting my own place  That’s all I ever wanted.”


Craig’s calm spirit, get-the-job-done-attitude, smile, and commitment makes the Gathering’s breakfast program a little better. We hope the connections made can pay him back for all he does for others.

Looking Down the Dirt Road with Jeanne

Jeanne (second from the right) with fellow volunteers at the dinner program

Jeanne (second from the right) with fellow volunteers at the dinner program


“I got involved with the Gathering because I was homeless, because I lost my job and I couldn’t pay my rent. And that’s basically the long and short of it. I came in one day and asked the coordinator downtown if she needed any help and the rest was pretty much Gathering history.”


Jeanne explained this story to me when asked how she first got involved with the Gathering. She is indeed a part of Gathering history, as she has been volunteering for the Gathering’s meal programs for about ten years.

Jeanne understands the issues that contribute to hunger and homelessness, having spent plenty of time at the Gathering and in Milwaukee. When sitting down with me, Jeanne discussed the Great Depression, the history of Milwaukee, labor issues, urban sprawl, globalization, deindustrialization and the rust belt, the education system, employment issues and more.

“We never looked down the dirt road to see that the corporations and manufacturing jobs were not going to be here. I knew a lot of people that used to have decent, good paying jobs. But now we need to reinvent ourselves—because the industrial day is gone.”

Jeanne is adept at recognizing a lot of the structural and systemic issues that contribute to poverty, hunger and homelessness in Milwaukee. Her lived experiences as well as her self-education have taught her what is needed to turn things around for many disadvantaged individuals:


“Change doesn’t ever come from the top down, it comes from the bottom up. Maybe the time will come when somebody will get inspired to go out and say, ‘Enough! No more.’ People shouldn’t have to live like this. They shouldn’t have to suffer like this. We can do better.”


For Jeanne, and others involved in the Gathering community, the Gathering offers opportunities to do better. Even opportunities to influence change.

“Look at all the people that come here. Where do you find people like this? I don’t know of anywhere else where you might be able to go and meet all of the different kinds of people that come here. We’re like one big adopted dysfunctional family…Maybe [The Gathering] is an idea showing what cooperation could be like. Maybe even showing an idea of what things could be like. If you leave the baggage at the door and everybody comes here and everybody gets together. Who knows? You’ve seen what people do here. We just come in and do whatever. Everybody has a job, everyone has pretty much done every job. Everybody comes in here and does whatever needs to be done. The work gets done. We have fun doing it. But we realize the most important thing is not that we have fun, but the work we do, the most important thing is that people get fed. And that’s basically where it starts. A person comes in here, they’re hungry, and we feed ‘em. You’re going to get so much more back when you do that. I can sit here and preach to the choir but there is nothing like experiencing it for yourself.”

Jeanne’s communal view of the Gathering and the work being done is shared by others who volunteer with her at the Gathering’s dinner program. Some dinner volunteers have even tossed around the idea of opening their own restaurant. Jeanne’s ideas, communal vision, education and articulate hope for the future represent one piece of the puzzle that is needed to end hunger and homelessness.

The Gathering Guest Volunteers

Robert (rightmost) and Stephanie (middle) serve in the breakfast line

Robert (rightmost) and Stephanie (middle) serve in the breakfast line

Guest volunteers are Gathering guests who cross the serving line to also donate their time as volunteers. These individuals provide valuable insight, energy, dedication, compassion and expertise to the Gathering community. They offer something that nobody else can—experience at the table and behind the scenes. Over the past few months, I have had the privilege of sitting down with a number of guest volunteers to hear their stories. They have some pretty amazing words that capture the communal spirit of the Gathering better than I ever could.

“It’s a place where individuals can come, sit down, eat a good meal, enjoy themselves, fellowship with each other and just have a nice time. Be thankful and grateful for those they know and those they care for and to just be with each other. Eat a good meal and everything.” - Stephanie, Breakfast volunteer

“A lot of people don’t understand how homelessness is. People don’t know how hard it is. You can lose your job, all your money, just like that, it happens...I used to be homeless just like the guests. I feel like I need to give something back because I understand what it’s like.” - Robert, Breakfast volunteer

“See, I used to come here [to the Gathering’s breakfast site] back in the 80s before I started working again. I like it here for the simple reason that from the first time I started coming over here until now, Don’t matter who they have running it or who they have working it - they always have the same mentality that they had back then. And that mentality is to treat people... ...with dignity and remind them that they’re not an animal and that things get better. When you treat people with respect, and stuff like that, they tend to not think that they know better than anybody else, That they’re all the same, Everybody goes through certain things. That’s the way it was back then and it still holds true now the way they do it.” - Ray, Breakfast volunteer.

“Look at all the people that come here [to the Gathering’s dinner site]. I don’t know of anywhere else where you might be able to go and meet all of the different kinds of people that come here. We’re like one big adopted dysfunctional family. Maybe [the Gathering] is an idea, showing what cooperation could be like. If you leave the baggage at the door and everybody comes here and everybody gets together, who knows? You’ve seen what people do here...everybody comes and does whatever needs to be done. We realize the most important thing is that people get fed. And that’s basically where it starts. A person comes in, they’re hungry, and we feed ‘em. You’re going to get so much more back when you do that. I can sit here and preach to the choir but there is nothing like experiencing it for yourself” - Jeanne, Dinner volunteer

The Gathering’s guest volunteers are an amazing group of people. The stories they share and the dedication they bring to the table is incredible. Don’t believe us? Then follow Jeanne’s advice and come experience it for yourself.